A good release pen is a key tool in the success of most pheasant shoots. Getting the whole picture of habitat, space, siting, and construction right is critical to the success of your shoot. How surprising, then, that so many pens are cramped, badly made and poorly sited.
Location, location, location
Two factors tend to be weighed up when siting a pen, namely being away from the boundary to reduce the risk of straying, and providing a home base to drive birds back to. These are both valid, but do not be fooled by the conventional view that pheasants will regard the pen as ?home?. They may well, but they are not obliged to do so, and if the habitat is bad enough they are likely to decamp en masse.
Another common mistake is to site the pen in a valley bottom, with a view to showing birds back from the surrounding high points. This sometimes works well enough, but birds might simply decide to glide downhill back to the pen, and still turn out to be low over the Guns. On the other hand, a good site on high ground with places to show birds from across the other side of the valley is pretty reliable.
Good birds are possible in flat country too. The key here is to site the home wood/pen far enough from the drives that the pheasants are forced to try hard to fly back home. A distance of three to four hundred metres is likely to be about right.
Newly released pheasant poults are remarkably silly birds. So, if you want a decent proportion to survive and thrive, you must give them a safe environment. They need lots of low cover to dive into when danger threatens. Also, they will need to learn to roost off the ground, so lots of low to mid height cover of up to, perhaps, four or five metres high is essential.
Given plenty of cover the other need is a bit of sun on their backs, so the rule of thumb for a good pen is to have a third each of: open spaces, low escape cover and roosting area. This mix should be available as an intimate mosaic of all three types over the whole pen area. In this way your birds will use the whole pen evenly and avoid crowding into small parts where they are at greater risk of passing on any illnesses, as well as being more vulnerable to predation.
Many folk think that big trees are in some way appreciated by pheasants but this is not really so. Too much tree canopy tends to starve the woodland floor of light, thereby suppressing ground cover. The worst examples of this are the likes of mature beech woodland where there can be no ground cover.
Do not suppose that a thick canopy is good for hiding your birds from buzzards and other birds of prey. They have eyesight that far exceeds ours, and will spot your poults on the bare woodland floor the minute you release them. Doing a slalom between mature tree trunks to snatch up a succulent morsel presents no challenge at all.
Also, try to avoid taking the fence outside the wood. These open spaces are particularly easy for raptors to hunt, and they also often contain a delicate mix of flora and fauna which are easily damaged by crowds of poults. The answer to sun in the pen lies in wielding the chainsaw.
Room to roam
Pheasants need room. Overcrowding will increase stress levels, making them more prone to disease, and easier for predators to pick off. It can also cause habitat damage. The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) has carried out detailed scientific investigations into the effect of varying release densities on woodland habitat over the past 30 years.
This has shown that densities of up to 1,000 poults per hectare of pen are unlikely to do any significant lasting damage to woodland flora.
Ancient semi-natural woodlands are a special case. These last remnants of what was once a large part of the British landscape can be particularly sensitive. So, wherever possible, it is best to avoid siting pheasant pens on them. This is fine when you have plenty of options, but not so good if you only have this type of woodland. In this case, as a precaution, the GWCT recommends that you reduce the density to no more than 700 per hectare. All of this guidance, and the research behind it, is summed up in the GWCT leaflet Guidelines for Sustainable Gamebird Releasing, which is available as a free download from the GWCT website (www.gwct.org.uk).
The perfect pen
There is not a single correct way to build a pen, but what follows is the distillation of more than 60 years of refinement by the GWCT?s advisory team. It is based on the principle that you want to hold on to your poults by protecting them from ground predators. To do this well you need a fence that is about 2 to 2.1m high, with about 30cm buried below ground or turned out and pegged down to stop predators from digging in. A further 30cm should be turned out at the top to hold back predators that try to jump or climb in.
There was a time when only wire netting was considered good enough, but these days extruded black plastic is of good quality, and fine for the top part of the pen. Indeed, its lighter weight makes it easier to hang, and it is much less visible than galvanised steel wire. However, if you go all the way to the ground there is too much risk of rats chewing holes that can let more serious predators in. So for the bottom part, I always use 25mm of wire netting.
Putting up a good fence and leaving an easy climbing frame is a big mistake, so always clear a 4m wide track for your pen perimeter, and site the fence in the middle, removing any overhanging branches, inside or out, to a height of 4m. You also need to account for the stupidity of poults that fly out but do not know how to fly back in by having re-entry funnels every 50m or so. These should be protected with a GWCT-pattern anti-fox grid. Also make sure that your own gates fit well and have the protective fringe above and below, and that there are no tight corners where your birds could be trapped.
An electric fence outside the pen is considered essential by most keepers. Remember that they work best when the animal concerned has all four feet firmly earthed. Two strands of wire about 15 and 30cm high, and 40 to 50 cm out from the pen seems to work best to deter foxes.
Food and water
Newly released pheasants can easily get lost in a big pen, so make sure it has a good ride network leading in and out of all corners. A feeder for every 50 birds is a good minimum, and make sure they are well distributed with one in each corner. Automatic water systems are best, but I like a few simple drinkers in the out-ofthe-way places too, at least in the first days.
With all this in place everything should go swimmingly, but do not forget to keep things clean. Moving feeders and drinkers to avoid muddy spots is good practice, and do wear clean boots, which you should dip in disinfectant in and out. These little bits of extra care really do pay off, and you should be able to look forward to tremendous sport with strong and well-grown birds next season.